Vampire stories, at their core, are about liminality. They take place in the space between life and death, humanity and monstrosity, love and desire. The vampire is transgressive: by virtue of its immortality and thirst for blood it intrudes on the order of a society, first by its very existence and then again, once invited into a home by a someone under their thrall. There is no easy place for the vampire because they are always of two worlds: recognizable by their form, but separate, distant. They are simultaneously many things, many of them contradictory, caught in-between in a delicate, impossible balance. They are familiar, but they don’t belong.
It’s why we find vampires so alluring. They’re the mascot monster for anyone that ever felt pulled between worlds, with no one place to be.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is about feeling like you don’t belong, and making a space of your own. Like the vampire it stars, it exists in a liminal space caught between styles, cultures, languages, settings and themes. The film is many things at once – many of which have never been seen together before – hanging in delicate balance as something wholly unique and utterly enthralling.
Like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, first-time director Ana Lily Amirpour also exists in many worlds at once. An Iranian-American born in England, Amirpour is candid about the ways American films facilitated her “assimilation” into American culture. The language for her new home was shaped by cinema and media of all kinds: Film Noir, New Wave, Madonna, Westerns, and, of course, The Vampire Lestat. As an Iranian kid with an English accent living in Miami, she grew up well-versed in the liminality and complexity of life as an immigrant in America, especially one from an Islamic country in the early 2000’s. Amirpour had already lived her life halfway between worlds, negotiating a space fully her own in a life full of seeming contradiction. It’s a quality that shines in every moment of her debut work.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night bills itself as the very first ‘Iranian Vampire Western’, but that’s kind of reductive. In reality, it’s more like the world’s first Farsi-language Spaghetti Western, Black Comedy, Film Noir, Silent Picture, Arthouse Drama, Monster Movie and Romance, all rolled into one. I get why they didn’t put all seventeen genres on the back of the case, but it’s critical to an understanding of what makes A Girl so special: it’s a dozen different things simultaneously, existing in perfect balance. It is seventeen things at once, but also entirely itself. Comparisons to Tarantino are merited but unfair – he doesn’t have this subtle of a touch.
Lily Ana Amirpour just calls it “an Iranian Fairytale“.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night takes place in the black-and-white world of Bad City. It’s an industrial ghost town where we’ll only meet about a dozen residents, and most of them only at night. While the movie was shot in Southern California, Bad City is somewhere in Iran – though we’re never told where or when anything takes place. It’s a lonely town, and largely silent. There are no crowds to be seen, and whatever names we’re given are said in passing between characters, or never at all. The vampire herself, when we finally encounter her, doesn’t have a name either. She doesn’t need one.
Masuka the cat does get a name. He belongs to the film’s co-protagonist Arash, who lives with his heroin-addict father Hossein. Deep in debt to a local pimp, their lives are spent scrounging for money not only to survive, but to slowly pay back the mountain of interest on their loan. The pimp, Saeed, finds his patience running short and takes Arash’s treasured car as payment. When Saeed encounters a transfixing, silent young woman the following night, things change.
They quickly change for Arash as well.
Crowd-funded on a small budget and featuring a cast of about ten, calling A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night minimalist would be an understatement. But every crawling, long shot of an alley or close-up on a grimacing face sets the scene perfectly: this is a slow-moving world, and one full of menace. This is where the film’s Spaghetti Western influences sneak in. Every scene in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is shot on an anamorphic lens that stretches every shot into a panorama. While the film is two hours long, it feels shorter, because every shot is framed so carefully and held in place for so long. It isn’t uncommon for the camera to hesitate on a still shot of a car for a beat longer than you’d expect, or smash-cut to a gaze out at the smokestacks in the distance. It wears the Western influence on its sleeve, right next to the carefully-placed shadows of its Film Noir.
It’s a gorgeous film. Bare concrete sings under the floodlamps as The Girl prowls her city by night. However, the vampire’s lair, when we finally see it, is alive with light. Every surface is plastered with New Wave posters, surrounding the record player next to her bed. Her bat-cave is a modest basement suite where she goes to sway gently to synth-pop and sleep through the days. At night the black shawl she wears, her chador, falls off her shoulders and swoops down in a Nosferatu-style cape. When she’s mad, she pulls it tight. Her body contorts like a snake as her eyes grow wide, making her every bit the movie monster A Girl promises she’ll be.
At the same time, she’s still human. Under the cloak she wears a plain, striped shirt. She has running shoes so that she can skateboard everywhere, because she teaches herself how halfway through the film. In a fun touch, all the skateboard scenes are Amirpour herself filmed from a distance. To look at her, The Girl is a normal young woman, obsessed with pop culture and caught between the Human world she knows, and the Vampiric side she hides behind her bedroom door. The imagery and tension reach well beyond the vampire metaphor.
The Girl hardly ever speaks, but she doesn’t really need to.
We already know who she is.
Her victims, however, are very different.
In interview, Amirpour is very frank about A Girl‘s Feminist overtones. The Girl literally wanders alone at night in an empty, dangerous industrial town. It’s one of many inversions that emphasize her independence and strength. One of the others is the corruption and degradation of the men that surround her: Saeed literally has a crudely written ‘S E X’ tattoo under his chin. Hossein is a heroin addict, and while his withdrawal is another nod to vampire lore, he is helpless to help his son when he needs it most. The Girl has no friends and no family, but changes when she meets Ashra. While Ashra is compromised too, something changes in him when he steps into The Girl’s world. In shaking the dreary landscape of Bad City, he abandons a toxic side of himself as well.
I won’t go any further with spoilers, but it gets stranger from there.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night isn’t really about the story, though. It’s about the aesthetic overload of a film that is at once an expression of Iranian culture, Vampire lore, and a slowly-evolving, surprisingly touching misfit romance. Bad City sucks, but the humanity of its inhabitants is undeniable – even the ones that aren’t strictly human. It’s deeper than you think.
I can go on forever about the million cool little touches that make this one special (inspired by comics! the soundtrack!), but I’ll leave it with this. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, in being a fusion of a dozen different genres twisted in a dozen different ways, is an expression of liminality itself. Like The Girl and Amirpour, the film’s identity is its own. It repurposes the signifiers of a dozen different genres to carve its own, distinct space; one that respects each of its influences in turn. For a film constructed out of homage, it’s startlingly unique.
While A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is in Farsi, it speaks a language of its own.
It’s the best vampire movie I’ve seen in a decade, and the best Iranian-vampire-spaghetti-western-romance ever. It’s on Shudder, go check it out.